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‘Lisbon has a feeling of another world.’

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Feature by Mikaela Aitken

Professional footballer Hannah Wilkinson is an exceptional creator both on and off the pitch. The Whangārei–born striker has been on the New Zealand National Football Team since 17, competing in three FIFA Women’s World Cups and three Olympic Games. 

Her mastery at the Beautiful Game has seen her live across the world, wearing jerseys for teams in the US, Sweden, Germany and Portugal. As an equally inspiring artist off the field, Hannah was recently announced as one of the six Olympian and Paralympian artists-in-residence for the first ever Olympic Agora exhibition, to be hosted at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Her bold, energetic graphic style emphasises the dynamism of Hannah's talent. From hotel quarantine in Auckland, we chat about creativity providing an escape, feeling right at home while living in Lisbon, and a few of her favorite spots.


On getting your start in football

I started playing when I was about eight because my brothers played and I did whatever they did. For a long time you could only be a professional footballer if you were a guy. I grew up playing with boys because there were no women’s teams in Whangārei. Once I realized football was something I could pursue, all I wanted was to play for New Zealand. At 17, I moved to Auckland, where the national team coaches were, and once I moved down everything changed pretty quickly. I made the youth national team, and then the major national team about a week later. I lived in Auckland until I was 20 and was studying, then I moved to the US and played for the University of Tennessee for five years. 

On following sport across the globe

The reason behind moving overseas was to become a better player for my country. Everything I did was so that I could play the best that I could for New Zealand. We’d all be playing away from home and then it’d be really nice to be on tour together and play in so many amazing countries. Being part of the team is so important. COVID has been difficult because we haven’t played together in over a year. 

On creativity as an outlet

Sometimes the pressure can be debilitating. Studying psychology has helped me develop strategies, but even then, elite sport can be quite taxing mentally. Being able to take a step back, relax and focus on art, helps to balance me out. I’m not always overwhelmed by pressure but there are plenty of those moments, so creativity is a nice escape.

Lisbon is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in Europe. With this age comes a host of incredible artistry and architecture, ranging from the post 1755 earthquake build that isPraça do Comércio (top and bottom), to the city's 16th century carpet of stone underfoot and the network of trams introduced in 1873. Images courtesy Hannah Wilkinson.

On the Olympic Agora project

One of my teammates sent me a tweet from the IOC that was calling all Olympic artists. It looked fun, so I sent some ideas through and was selected. It’s part of the Olympic Agora project. We originally had it lined up so that I’d head to Japan before the Games and do a mural on the subway, but COVID happened. Thankfully though, we’ve been able to produce the work digitally. It will be in a space where the public can visit and see work from current and former Olympic athletes. All the works created have significance to the Games. I’ve never done anything like this before so it’s such a great opportunity. 

‘Being able to take a step back, relax and focus on art, helps to balance me out. I'm not always overwhelmed by pressure but there are plenty of those moments, so creativity is a nice escape.’

On the inspiration behind your artwork

I had two major inspirations. The first was the evolution of the Olympic Games and the story of the modernisation and diversification of sport. There are so many unique sports being introduced. Skateboarding and surfing are sports I did growing up, so for me it’s really awesome that they’re being recognised as Olympic sports and allowing people the opportunity to showcase all kinds of human ability. The second inspiration I wove through was the misfortune of athletes dealing with COVID, and the resilience they’re having to show. Everything is programmed so perfectly as an athlete, especially for single-sport athletes; to have the Olympics cancelled means your progress is completely disrupted. It’s such a test of resilience to overcome that. It takes a lot of character to pull through and end up on the other side, ready to compete.

On the magic of the Olympic Games

The Olympics has a very communal feeling with the rest of the athlete group, and the New Zealand team is part of a nationwide team. That, to me, is extremely special and a huge honor. Within the village, you’re among all of your New Zealand teammates and you’re watching one another compete. Someone will shout that the rowing is on, and we’ll all file into a room and watch the TV. There’s this camaraderie and unity. You know everyone is watching and that we’re all just one big team. 

From personal projects (above) to Olympic commissions (below), Hannah is kicking goals off the field with her art. Her Olympic Agora commissions will sit alongside five other Olympic and Paralympic athletes at the exhibition in Tokyo. Images courtesy Hannah Wilkinson and IOC.

On playing college football in America

I went to the University of Tennessee in my sophomore year, and studied psychology. I loved it and I’m still close with a lot of good friends and my coach. He was an intelligent coach who was extremely good at leading, and I really respected him. Once you respect a coach, you always play your best. Any time I’m talking to a young footballer, I recommend playing at a US college because, if you get the chance, it’s such a great opportunity. People go crazy for college sports over there, it’s serious business.

On living across Europe

Next I went to Sweden and played professionally for a couple of years in the highest division of the Swedish Women’s League. It was an awesome experience, but going from college to professional sport was extremely hard. I went from being spoiled and supported to being left to my own devices. Thankfully I had the national team experience, which helped me cope with the level of play. However if you don’t perform, you don’t play. Then I did my ACL again and had to head home. I moved to Lisbon after recovering. I went from playing in the World Cup in France, to living in Portugal. I lived in Alcochete, which is across the bridge from Lisbon, but I made sure I went exploring in Lisbon all of the time — it is the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived… outside of New Zealand, of course! Then I moved to Stockholm, in the middle of the pandemic. After that I moved to Duisburg in Germany. I’ve got a lot of stuff scattered across the world. 

On the gender divide in football

There’s not a lot of money in women’s football, and while it has come a long way, there’s plenty of work to do. One of the first things we need to do is give women the same platforms as the men. The biggest misconception is that women want more money than men — that’s not true. What we want is equal support; equal funding. All we ask for is the same platform so that people can see us play. And that’s another misconception — that no one watches women’s football. No one watches women’s football because it’s not being played on the TV, so how are people meant to watch it?

We need the same media access and TV rights, so we can create opportunities for people to watch. Then let’s see what happens. The US women’s national team during the World Cup had more viewers than the men’s. And that’s because it was made available. That US women’s national team is also arguably more loved than the men’s, which is mostly unheard of in the world of sport. Every little girl in the States is looking at those athletes and dreaming of playing soccer. People like to complicate the gender divide argument, but honestly, it’s really not that complicated.

‘Lisbon has two major teams — SL Benfica and Sporting CP — and it’s the biggest rivalry. There’s this huge red stadium over there and a huge green stadium over there, and there are places you can’t go if you’re a Sporting fan, and places you can’t go if you’re a Benfica fan. It’s crazy!’

As well as playing in Sweden (above) and Lisbon (second), Hannah has been a member of the New Zealand national women's football team for more than a decade, regularly traveling the world to play in international tournaments, including the 2012 London Olympics, 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Images courtesy Hannah Wilkinson, Sporting CP, Photosport and New Zealand Football.

On your love of Lisbon

I love Lisbon so much and am keen to go back. It was a very good team — we were one of the best teams in the league — and I love my teammates. I played for Sporting CP, which is a massive Portuguese club and is where Ronaldo grew up playing. They have this huge football academy set on a farm outside of this tiny little village called Alcochete. It might seem a little strange but I loved it. It’s important to note that Lisbon has two major teams — SL Benfica and Sporting CP — and it’s the biggest rivalry. There’s this huge red stadium over there and a huge green stadium over there, and there are places you can’t go if you’re a Sporting fan, and places you can’t go if you’re a Benfica fan. It’s crazy! Sometimes the girls were lucky enough to play in the main stadiums. I had the chance to play in the men’s Benfica Stadium. To date, it is the best field I’ve ever played on in my career, with no bumps and grass so flawless it was like carpet.

‘The biggest misconception is that women want more money than men — that’s not true. What we want is equal support; equal funding. All we ask for is the same platform so that people can see us play.’

On exploring Lisbon

I love Lisbon at night, when the musicians come out. It’s not your usual buskers, like someone singing with a guitar. It’s a guy with a cello, or a classical guitarist, or pianist. That, to me, is real magic. I would head into the city at night just so I could hear the music playing on Praça do Comércio. It’s a huge square right by the water with a large statue and it’s surrounded by restaurants. 

I also love the architecture of Lisbon, the colors and the tiles with their intricate designs that are usually hand-painted. The city is quite hilly and there’s one street in the Alfama district that has this beautiful view from an observational deck called Miradouro de Santa Luzia. Up there is this building that, I’m pretty sure, has been hand-painted. It’s covered in tiles with the scenery painted in blue, and it’s quite stunning. There is also beautiful street art everywhere, and the cobblestones! It’s like crossing into another world, or going back in time. While at the academy, all I could think about was heading out to explore. 

On your favorite spots to eat and drink

Lx Factory is under this train bridge and sits in an old factory. It’s a little network of cafés and cute shops. There’s a market on Sunday and people come out and sell handmade arts and crafts. It’s also a little hub of amazing food, coffee and beer. And the space is lit up with fairy lights at night. It’s my favorite place to go, by far. Then there’s a café I really like called Nicolau, which always has a huge line outside. They have the best brunches and coffee, plus it’s so cozy and everyone’s in such a good mood. I actually don’t have that much of a sweet tooth, but I’m weak when it comes to Nicolau’s pancakes. Their red velvet pancakes are indescribable.

From the castles of Sintra to the surf of New Zealand, Hannah Wilkinson takes the time to dive under the skin of each place she calls home. Images courtesy Hannah Wilkinson.

On heading out of the city

Just outside of Lisbon is a place called Sintra. When I had a full day off, I’d catch the train out and head to Pena Palace, which is quite well known. It’s strikingly beautiful and overlooks all of Sintra. To head up there you can take an open-roof bus and soak in the surrounding forest and fresh air. It’s like being in a fantasy movie and is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The colors are striking, and you’re able to walk all through the castle. I was gobsmacked the first time I went there. Then, from the Wizard-of-Oz vibes of Pena Palace, you head over to Castelo dos Mouros, to the medieval times. Then you come back down into the little city of Sintra and at the foot of the mountain is this really cool café called Cantinho Gourmet that I’d head to with my teammates on our day off. I have such happy memories of us sitting there, enjoying the view. 

‘Pena Palace is strikingly beautiful and overlooks all of Sintra… It’s like being in a fantasy movie and is unlike anything I've ever seen before.’

On where to next

We have a World Cup coming up in New Zealand and Australia in 2023, which is very cool. I’ve always wanted to play in Australia and now is the perfect time.

On a window or an aisle seat

Window. I hate flying, I’m terrified of it. So sitting by the window allows a sense of control — I can see where we’re going and if everything’s okay. I fly so much though, that I’ve had no choice but to get over it.

On Lisbon in one word

Magical. Lisbon has a feeling of another world. It’s like nowhere else I’ve lived. It was almost like fulfilling a childhood fantasy. Plus it’s extremely cheap, which means you can do so much. 


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‘Lisbon has a feeling of another world.’